Purity and Outreach

The Shakers were a religious group, an offshoot of the Quakers who shared much in common with their Friends. Like the Quakers, the Shakers believed that they had a personal connection to God that manifested itself through trembling. The Shakers took it further, though, believing that their shaking was the departure of sin from their bodies. Like the Quakers, the Shakers believed strongly in equality. The Shakers simply carried it further, into (successful, small-scale) communism. And where Quakers believed in bringing God into everyday life, the Shakers believed in excluding all that was not godly. They wanted purity.

The Shakers got what they wanted, as well. They lived their lives mostly segregated from the rest of the world. Segregated from each other, as well, since purity, to them, meant no sex.

As you can imagine, a sect without sex has something of a recruitment problem. The Shakers never grew beyond a few thousand members, and without being able to indoctrinate from birth, they’ve shrunk to somewhere fewer than a dozen members currently. They’ll die out soon. For all intents and purposes, they already have.

While the Shakers did have a disproportionate affect on U.S. music and design, that’s a topic for a different post, one on art and children perhaps. The more important point here is that they’re gone–and why.

One of the most amusing things about watching the Republican party turn into a purity movement over the last couple of decades, maybe the only amusing thing, was the realization that purity movements are, by definition, self-limiting. Not only do they define themselves by what they are not, but they’re rarely content with yesterday’s definition of pure. The Shakers escaped that, maybe because they valued equality so thoroughly, maybe because of where they started(!), but most groups that value purity above all else start to get competitive about it.

Generally, however, purity movements either abandon their quest for purity in favor of rewarding in-group status (see the treatment of recent Republican infidelity revelations) or they splinter into tinier sects, some still obsessed with purity, others offering various loopholes (see the Mormon polygamist groups).

None of these outcomes are anything I want to see for any group I’m involved with, so I twitch when I see someone trying to draw, for example, simple lines between what is and what is not feminism. And when I say twitch, I mean I tell y’all about it.

Most recently, I’ve been twitching about these big, overlapping groups of rationalists and critical thinkers who are out here fighting the good fight against various forms of irrationality. I was talking to Genie Scott on the radio in the midst of the accommodationism debate. I watched people recommend that anti-creationists withdraw from Bloggingheads because it had given insufficiently critical air time to creationists. And all too often, I see people dismiss naive, ignorant questions with the same contempt they expend on proselytizers and the peddlers of woo.

Are we turning into our own purity movement? It wouldn’t be difficult to do. We do, after all, value accuracy. There are places where, ethically, we need to draw hard, fast lines. And we have better evidence that we’re right than most of these other purity movements. It would be terribly easy to draw harder, faster lines, excluding those who don’t meet our standards for accurately portraying the most current evidence for…well, anything really.

In fact, the accommodationism debate seems to be working very hard to head that direction over a question of words. Yes, that’s right, words. Which ambiguous, context-dependent words are used to most accurately capture the weird, diverse, sometimes irrational and illogical way the mind works has become an issue of utmost importance. Descriptive words are becoming fighting words.

We can do that if we want to. No reason rationalism can’t have its own academic slapfights that mean nothing to the rest of the world. No reason we can’t splinter into tiny sects. No reason at all…except that it means losing sight of one of our major goals–education.

See, here’s the thing about education: it’s progressive. We start with the simple, the general, and build from there. Take reading. While significant numbers of children can easily learn to read using a whole-word method, the evidence has grown that the most sure way to teach almost all children to read is intensive work in phonics.

This means that we teach them that “a” sounds one way in “car” and a different way when an “e” is added to make “care.” This gives them the tools they need to decipher the vast majority of “a” sounds. What we don’t do is bring up words like “career” before they’ve got the basics down. In order to be accurate, the rule would have to be that a vowel sound is short when alone and long when followed by an “e” except when…or in the exceptional cases of…. But this just isn’t helpful for the new reader.

Rational thinking is progressive as well. It is most decidedly not something we’re born to. If it were, there’d be no need for all the outreach that we do. We would never have to teach the difference between anecdote and data. We would never have to caution against confirmation bias or uncritically accepting authority. We wouldn’t have to point out when our skeptical spokespeople are trading on their reputation for skepticism instead of in skepticism itself.

Even in those last cases, we counter fact with fact to show that the situation cannot be so simply stated. We don’t declare that those who overstate their own degree of critical thinking to have put themselves outside the realm of critical thinking or to be a danger to critical thinking in general. We simply point out that no one is perfectly rational about everything, label the situation as a prime example and move on with our common goals of increasing general levels of rationality and decreasing the harm that the hucksters can do.

Am I saying that we should never argue with the educators over their means? No, no more than I’m saying that each of us must always take the time to fully answer naivety (although this person could use some reading material if someone has links handy) or that those of us with multiple avenues to reach a broad public should never abandon one as annoyingly cumbersome.

I am saying that it’s a very big, irrational world out there, and that we should be wary of choosing our targets based on the fact that they will listen to the arguments we make. In many ways, our allies are the easiest people to argue with, just because they care about the same things we do. They are not, however, where the biggest gains in rationality are to be made. That comes from reaching out to the people who have several steps to take before they would even register on our rationality meters.

And there is our choice. Rationalists are a finite resource. So is the energy we can dedicate. We can spend it reaching out to the (often oblivious and sometimes annoying) general population, or we can turn it on each other until we are all cleansed of irrationality and imprecision. I know which requires the greatest work, and I know which one I’ll choose every time.

Let’s just say I’m not with the Shakers.

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21 Responses to “Purity and Outreach”

  1. September 18th, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    Dan J says:

    Excellent post, as always, Stephanie.

    It’s a very difficult thing to decide which battles are worth entering. Like you mentioned, it’s very easy to enter into a debate about a minor point with someone who agrees with us on the larger picture.

    Reaching out to those who don’t register on my rationality meter is the most difficult part, and not one that I’m very good at. I have miles of patience most times, but can’t seem to be bothered with people who cannot (or refuse to) grasp the most basic principles (like Jason’s Albatross). They’re fun to shout at sometimes, but ultimately not worth it.

    If it were someone who honestly has questions about a topic like evolution, or abiogenesis, or something that their religion tells them they aren’t allowed to question, I’d be right there ready and willing to bring up the resources for them and even read it out loud to them. But I think those people are halfway to our side already. They have questions. The ones who seem to actively question us or comment on our positions are most often the ones whom I see as irredeemable.

    Are many people really hopelessly lost when it comes to rational thought? Can everyone be taught critical thinking skills, or are some people, by virtue of religious indoctrination, unable (or unwilling) to learn?

  2. September 18th, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Frankly, when I reach toward the unreachable, I assume I’m never going to make it. What I do hope is that I may reach one or two people along the way. Never know who’s listening. Not that that always makes it worth the effort.

    And really, there are days when I’m as unreachable as anybody else.

  3. September 18th, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    “Everything in the bible is proven by science! What’s the problem!!?!???”

  4. September 18th, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Um, yeah. See, now, about how science works….

  5. September 19th, 2009 at 6:05 am

    MadScientist says:

    Then again, some people may be wondering whether they should embrace the woowoo or curse it and send it away. Those are the people who still have some hope of understanding how to think. Many skeptics also have to be told that they’re a bit funny at times. People like Dumbski are probably beyond educating and even though we can’t talk to him, we still need to call him names and tell other people that he’s a moron and if people are inclined to believe the Dumbski we can try to show those people why Dumbski is wrong. If skeptics had nothing further to learn from other skeptics there would be little point in events like TAM – unless some people felt like congratulating themselves or something – and that would be creationist weird.

  6. September 19th, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Greg Laden says:

    I think self congratulations can occur in a lot of different contexts, but one of them could be (but is not necessarily) in the purity setting.

    I’ve had a recent interesting experience in that I happened into an existing internet community, and made a comment. The community did not have any signs up saying “Don’t comment here unless you are already commenting here” but that is clearly the case in that particular locale. Valid questions were brought up regareding my comment, but they all indicated to me that there was a modus operendus for how to communicate there, and I was not in the mode.

    There is an argument that one should not just show up and start talking in a community, but rather, sit and watch and wait and learn and then open your mouth. However, not all communities work that way. I certainly hope that people who comment on Quiche Moraine never feel that way … that if you arrive too late you can’t be part of it. Same for my blog (tell me if that ever happens).

    I don’t have an objection to communities being partly closed in this way (though I wish they would self identify better so one can know to either avoid or engage in the way they want). The reason I bring it up here is because this sort of linguistic identification (and that is what it is) comes along with most human communities. Just try walking into a sports bar and talking to the guys at the bar, then go over the the humanities library and have a conversation with the people hanging around outside in the informal smoking area. Then go to a talk at the local Business School and chat with the other talk-goers at the post-talk wine and cheese gathering.

    A purity setting requires a linguistic framework, and often, that is where the purity is manufactured. <--- that is a very unformed thought but could be developed further but I have to go back to work now ...

  7. September 19th, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    There’s more than self-congratulation that can lead to that kind of state. Having a lot of members who’ve been attacked at a point where they didn’t feel fully capable of defending themselves alone can also lead to a certain structured quality to a community, as can finally finding those people who “get” you. The more important the community, the more you want it to remain as is. You want it to grow, because there’s a thrill to finding new people who just fit, but your risk tolerance is lower.

    I admit, I have to be careful not to say, “That isn’t how we do things around here.” And I still screw it up, despite specifically valuing a diversity of voices.

  8. September 19th, 2009 at 1:57 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    I admit, I have to be careful not to say, β€œThat isn’t how we do things around here.”

    Well, when I say that, my tongue is courting my cheek.

  9. September 19th, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Yes, but I was raised in Minnesota. Some of it stuck.

  10. September 19th, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Deen says:

    I don’t think the criticism that Rosenau is getting is because of a lack of purity, but because of a lack of clarity. Unless of course clarity is something you should possess to be deemed pure, of course.

  11. September 19th, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Deen, I’m reading the current go-round as largely a critique of using “know” in a casual rather than academic manner at a non-academic event and again on a blog that’s written in general language. Moreover, the response is criticism of the “I don’t want to work with this person” or “Don’t anyone take this person seriously” sort, rather than an attempt to figure out whether everyone might just be agreeing below the words. It’s exclusion based on the purity of something, but clarity between parties doesn’t seem to be the goal. Purity of language maybe?

  12. September 19th, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Lorax says:


    Insightful post with an engaging way to bring to religious sects, purity, and the current blogument ways-of-knowing meme. Now I might be accused of purism, but I think the specific meme doesnt necessarily fit into the purity issue. In part, I think much has to do with your audience. This debate is an offshoot of the accommodation debate and distills down (in my opinion (and revelation is a way of knowing πŸ˜› ) someone getting their undies in a wad over the perceived attack on a friend’s way-of-knowing speech. This led to the whole way-of-knowing issue, which is subject to some purity. As argued in a variety of posts is usage of terms in this debate is a floating variable and unfortunately this makes an argument next to impossible. Based on Rosenau’s usage, the monster bowel movement I had last week could be a way-of-knowing (I knew I had too many nachos). Others have jumped on this sloppy usage as essentially making the phrase and idea useless.

    I guess this can devolve into a who controls the language debate, but terms matter and usage matters otherwise we’re not much more than monkeys with type writers. And I know Im an elitist prick.

    Also, I would argue that this is not about education. For some yes, but for others no. When Coyne attacks the accommodationist position, it is not as to be a knight for public education and defense of evolution. Some people want to go after the stranglehold religion has on this country and nodding up and down to a poorly reasoned position which makes the religious feel justified with their beliefs is not the way this is done.

  13. September 20th, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Lorax, I agree that the use of “know” was imprecise, in both cases that are being attacked. However, do we exclude people from discussions, or from “proper” atheism (whatever that is), because they are not sufficiently precise, particularly when they are speaking to audiences that use a different vocabulary?

    I wouldn’t call you an elitist prick (unless you thought it was a compliment), but I would argue that you do have a certain privilege. Your students come to you. That’s huge. Even the students who may be hostile to what you teach are there for a reason, and that reason generally keeps them engaged.

    The NCSE is dealing with people who do not have even that engagement with science education, who don’t understand why it’s necessary and who actively believe it might be harmful. That requires a certain amount of travel on Mohammed’s part, and I’m not talking about any statements about religion (in part because I have my own problems with strong statements from the NCSE on that topic). I’m talking about even just the basics of getting people to think about learning and knowledge. We can say that this ought to happen in our language instead of theirs, but will it? To temporarily take religion out of the question entirely, would you chide elementary school teachers who got students interested in learning your subject for being imprecise in their language in ways you can and will correct later?

    Now, to put religion back in, if we want to release that chokehold, we’re going to have to look at where it comes from and what’s effective in changing it. That means looking at voting blocs that can be counted on, and that means fundamentalists and evangelicals. And when we’re looking at fundamentalists and evangelicals, we’re looking at low levels of education and biblical views of creation. So which is going to help more, focusing on the purity of the language of those who already agree with us or focusing on education in whatever language is required to reach the people who need reaching? (There are several steps missing from that argument, but I think they’re generally agreed upon.)

    And yeah, I know I’m an annoying pragmatist. πŸ™‚

  14. September 21st, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Jason Thibeault says:

    I’m of the opinion that knowledge is merely belief that also happens to be right. Unfortunately lots of people think they have knowledge when they actually have beliefs. Lots of people think that my saying you can’t know what someone else knows, but you can believe them, means that I’m saying you “can’t know anything”.

    That’s saying that a widespread belief can be mistaken for knowledge very easily, and that “knowledge” can be turned back into belief, and that belief can be shaken, with a few well-placed facts that run counter to it. Because of this, there IS only one “way of knowing”, and that’s believing what also happens to be true. You could falsely believe that your grandfather adored ice cream, because he never let on that he was secretly just choking it down the whole time. And that belief can become “knowledge” in your family, such that long after he’s dead, you’d be talking about how much your grandfather just loved his ice cream. You’d be wrong, and what you thought was knowledge was actually an unfounded belief. Likewise with religion. People think they have empirical knowledge that Jesus existed and talked to them and loves them because of X, Y and Z, but really they just misinterpreted what X, Y and Z actually mean, and have come to an erroneous belief that they have 100% certainty in.

    So when Genie Scott says there’s multiple “ways of knowing”, I tend to disagree. And that means I’m agreeing with her detractors to a degree. But that does not mean I intend to drum her out of the movement by any stretch of the imagination. Again, I’m really not fond of anything that might lead our already barely cohesive group to splinter. So, bitching and moaning about other people’s 1% difference is definitely counterproductive. Sometimes that 1% difference can be damaging (e.g. Mooney/Kirschenbaum’s “maybe we should sit down and shut up and not rock the boat so much”), but that doesn’t mean they’re not pure enough to be a “true Scotsman”, so to speak.

    Bah. These escapades are so draining.

  15. September 21st, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Joshua Zelinsky says:

    This is an excellent post. I’m almost tempted to make a comparison to how some members of the intelligent design community (especially Dembski) have gone out of their way to attack proponents of theistic evolution. See http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/two-books-in-the-pipeline/ for a reason example.

  16. September 21st, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Deen says:

    @Stephanie: The “purity” angle was an interesting angle, but I really don’t think it’s just about mincing words. As Jason Rosenhouse pointed out here, the “ways of knowing” language is usually used to carve out a space for religion. It doesn’t even matter how specifically you define “to know”, when you hear the phrase “science is not the only way of knowing”, someone is either selling snake oil or religion – that’s how the phrase appears to be commonly used. If you are going to talk approvingly about how religion is a “way of knowing”, you shouldn’t be surprised if people think you’re supporting religious apologetics. If that’s not your intent, you should be making it extra clear what you mean with the phrase.

    There’s also the factor that there are two issues involved: education about evolution and science in general on the one hand, and the push back against religion on the other. Not everybody who supports the former will support the latter as well, which may be a serious difference of opinion – and clearly, that’s the case here. And that’s fine. People can be allies on one issue, and still be having discussions about an issue they don’t agree on. And so they should. Clearly, the NCSE and its allies aren’t planning to stop talking publicly about how they think religion is a way of knowing. Why should we (the people who also want to oppose the authority of religion) stop talking about how we think religion is totally unreliable as a way of discovering knowledge?

    Admittedly, the two positions may not be mutually exclusive: we may grant that religion is a way of knowing, but it just so happens to be a useless way of knowing. Maybe that’s what the NCSE people secretly think? But out of strategic considerations, they just tend to leave the last bit out? Then of course this would become a discussion about the ethics of hiding your true position for strategic reasons.

    As an aside, if religion truly had a source of knowledge that would be unique to religion, not available to any other discipline, that would give religion that special authority, wouldn’t that have to be divine revelation? Then why would we grant that religion is a source of moral knowledge, but couldn’t possibly be a source of natural knowledge? What limits divine revelation to moral knowledge only? Just the fact that it has a lousy track record for natural knowledge? Then why would one assume it has a better track record for morality? It just doesn’t make sense.

    But I’m also happy to see that the discussion is still going on, and has been reasonably civil and constructive, as these things go. For instance, I’m happy to see that people are getting more careful about defining their terms.

  17. September 21st, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Deen, if you talk to the average person you run into, a person who hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about this stuff, “know” means “be really sure about” or “understand to be.” It’s a completely subjective term that makes no distinction about being connected to the outside world–being right–because objectivity is just not a big concern for these people. If you agree with something that someone says when using that lay definition that you wouldn’t agree with when said by someone who uses a specialized definition of the word, are you compromising your ethics or are you dealing pragmatically with the fact that language is a set of contextually dependent symbols? That’s where the question of purity of language comes in, ’cause you ain’t never gonna get me give up all my languages, even if they are all English.

    On the other hand, calling academics like theologians on using the everyday meaning to give themselves wiggle room when speaking academically or trying to reason objectively–that’s absolutely necessary. We just need to know which we’re doing at any given time. There’s room for both.

  18. September 21st, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Joshua: That is an interesting point .

  19. September 21st, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    Deen says:

    I still can’t shake the feeling that, whether under a formal or an informal definition of “to know”, whenever someone says, “science is not the only way of knowing, religion is a way of knowing too”, most people will take that as “religion is just as valid as science”. You don’t need sophisticated philosophical terminology for “ways of knowing” to give it this particular meaning, especially not in this context – apologists and believers will understand it as the common meaning. So will atheists who’ve had this argument used against them many times.

    Instead, you need the sophistry to make it sound like something less obviously pro-religion to your atheist or secular allies. For instance, you could try to make a case that pretty much anything, even playing golf, could be a “way of knowing”.

    Hmm, now that I’ve put it this way, I am actually seeing some possible ethical issues here… If you suggest to one group that religion is like science, and to another that it’s like watching Buffy, you’re not entirely being honest to at least one of these groups.

    Indeed, there’s room for both informal discussion and more academic, philosophical arguments. I have to say, though, that when reading stuff on a site called “scienceblogs”, I do have slightly higher expectations than talking to a random person on the street.

  20. September 21st, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    You have expectations that biologists should also be linguists or philosophers, but you want to argue with me based on your feelings? πŸ™‚

  21. September 22nd, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    Deen says:

    Oh, right, silly me, bringing “feelings” into our arguments. Guess I have to go and purify myself now πŸ˜‰

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